Author's note: This story was originally supposed to be part of the lost Fourth Annual Collaborative Writing Project, about a group of veterans who hold a meeting for old war tales. My character was a veteran of the Korean War, and the youngest present. I've removed the additional details that tie it into the planned overarching story, which sadly never came to fruition.
What remains is a bittersweet example of what could have been.Enjoy.
Jeonjang. War. It is an interesting concept.
In war, life is but a number, one to add to an arbitrary total that exists outside of the eventual outcome. You’re not an individual. You’re not a person. You’re a number, capable of adding or subtracting from that total. I’ve learned this after looking through countless records of Korea. You don’t find the names of the men who fought to defend our country’s rights. You see a number: 271,300. Nearly three hundred thousand lives lost to a conflict that never should have been. 227,800 dead; 43,500 MIA on the Korean side. Over four times the casualties of the Americans.
I look at the MIA total often. A round number, calculated to the nearest hundred for ease of effort. How many men were left unaccounted for by that margin?
Then I think back to the forest. Those familiar faces among the trees, all tragically extinguished as they shone their brightest.
And I can’t help but insist that number should be five greater.
I'm not trying to glorify my position in the war. I'm not trying to say we fought for what was right.
But I will say I fought for my country. And I was proud to do it.
I was only twenty then. I enlisted in the Korean People's Army of my own accord, despite the protest of my mother, whom I'd always hated for marrying the tyrant that was my father.
But I won't be too personal here. I won't tell you how his existence impacted mine.
How he used to beat me in front of his friends and laugh as they kicked dust in my mouth.
How he used to soil my bed when he was drunk, and rub my face in his excrement when I accidentally lay down in it.
How he always forced me to sit in the corner of his bedroom, my legs tied together, as he pleasured my mother in front of me.
I’m getting off track.
In any case, he was the main reason I enlisted. I just needed to get away. From all of it.
I won't tell you about my training, because every army does it the same. But I was deployed seven months later.
I belonged to the 2nd Division of the Ground Forces, the 14th Infantry Regiment. 3rd Section. You've never heard of it; it's because the UN had it removed from the history books after the war had ended. Why? I don't know. Maybe they thought we weren't important enough to be recognized. Maybe they wanted to erase all injustice done by North Korea.
Or maybe it's because of what happened on our first mission in 1951.
It was March, I recall. The bright emerald leaves were just starting to come out after the harsh winter the Army had had on the battlefield.
Bunnodae. Fury Squad. That was what we called ourselves. There were seven of us.
Our sergeant was a man by the name of Ji. We didn't know his full name, and we never dared ask. He was a steel-cold man, that Hollywood stereotype of a battle-hardened hero. We feared him more than any monster and admired him more than any celebrity at the same time. He was a puzzle of a man; strict, but understanding, at least during training. We knew only one thing about him, and it was that we knew nothing about him.
Our sharpshooter was Hyun-Wook. He was always talkative and jovial when we were eating or having a group discussion. But when he was on the battlefield, I'd never seen a more focused nor reserved person in my life.
Then there was Geun. He was the youngest of the group, and we didn't know much about him other than his father forced him to enlist. I deeply empathized with him, and made sure to take him under my wing. Apparently he and Hyun-Wook had known each other since elementary school.
Seok-Ho and Seok-Ju were twins, only a year older than I was. I don't remember much about them.
And lastly there was Tae. He was the sergeant's son. I often envied him for having such a noble father, one that treated him well and with respect instead of disdain. I expected him to brag and boast about his father's accomplishments, of which I was sure there were many, perhaps too many to count.
But, throughout our entire training and deployment, he never spoke a word, to us or his father.
After our first day in the field, we had suffered heavy losses on our side. Explosions were booming across the landscape, and bullets pelted the ground at our feet. Our battalion had lost at least 120 men, according to Hyun-Wook.
As we fired from the defenses, our hands calloused from clutching our T-99s, the sun began to lower below the horizon.
Above the deafening crash of a mortar hitting our concrete reinforcements, I heard Sergeant Ji issue an order.
"Tteol-eojyeo! Dwilo mulleoseo la!"
"Break off! Fall back!"
We looked at each other, confused. Why was Ji ordering us away from the defense position? Our battalion needed all the help they could get.
"DWILO MULLEOSEO LA!"
Without hesitating, we lowered our rifles and grabbed our sacks. We didn't know what would happen if we disobeyed the sergeant, and none of us wanted to find out.
We hopped over the concrete border of our point and began trudging through the slimy grass that layered the area. All except Hyun-Wook, who was still focused on sniping the enemy.
"Come on, Hyun! Let's go!" I shouted over the hail of bullets coming from each direction. [All of us except Ji (and Tae, of course) had practiced English extensively to intercept American messages during training, to such an extent that we spoke it solely through habit. Such was required of the youngest soldiers of the People's Army.]
Hyun-Wook turned to look at us, ducking so that the enemy's bullets would not hit him as he stepped away.
Then two of the bullets went through his pelvis.
I don't know how they penetrated the concrete, but they did. Hyun-Wook collapsed backwards in a motion of searing pain, clutching his lower body, bright red blood oozing through his fingers.
The rest of Fury Squad rushed to carry the wounded soldier. I grabbed his right arm, Geun his left, Seok-Ho on his right leg and Seok-Ju on his left. Tae stared forward in fear, gazing at the viscous red substance that was now pooling on the ground.
"Tae! Grab a stretcher!" Seok-Ju shouted.
He stood there, unflinching. I expected Ji to stroll right up to him and smack him right in the face for disobeying, but he did nothing. He simply stood there, arms crossed, tapping his boot against the mud.
We had to lay Hyun-Wook down on the filthy ground so Seok-Ho could get the stretcher. By the time he returned, he was in unbearable pain.
"I can't... move my legs..." he grunted. We opened up his shirt and saw two holes, one that went clean through the top center of his belly, hitting the spine, and another that had gotten lodged somewhere in his groin. We poured solution onto his exposed wounds and wrapped them in bandages.
As we struggled to lift our wounded friend, Tae simply stood there. I shot him several pleading glances to get him to help, but he was too absorbed in his fear.
Then Sergeant Ji did something I would never forget.
He walked up to our group and pulled Seok-Ho aside, handing him his T-38.
And he told him to shoot Hyun-Wook.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. There was a small part of me who wanted Seok-Ho to follow orders; to not upset the menacing presence that was Ji. But that part was overwhelmed by the part that knew what a terrible act it was.
"Sir, I-- I mean,
"Seonsaengnim, jeoneun igeos-eul hal su eobs-seubnida!" ("Sir, I can't do this!")
With this remark, Ji's normally stern expression turned to a clear, pronounced frown. Enraged, he tore the carbine from Seok-Ho's nervous grasp and thrust it into his brother's hands, screaming the same awful command in his face.
I expected Seok-Ju to do refuse like his brother. But what happened next terrified me.
He suddenly dropped his gaze and stared straight ahead, clutching the carbine. I could see that his white knuckles were on the verge of bleeding from the force. Ji moved out of the way of his stare, and for a moment he continued to look off in that direction. He didn't seem to be focusing on anything in particular; it was as if he was a statue, his eyes affixed to a natural position.
Then he broke his line of sight with the nothingness, and looked at his brother. He tilted his head sideways, almost like a dog, examining an intruder to judge whether it is a threat.
Then he turned to look at his wounded colleague. He raised his gun and uttered a phrase of confirmation:
"If you say so, sir."
Even though I knew what was about to happen, I still couldn't believe my eyes when it occurred.
Seok-Ju pulled the trigger and sent four bullets through Hyun-Wook's heart.
With this, Geun screamed and began crying, and Seok-Ho simply stared at the act, mouth agape, astonished at what his brother had just done.
Seok-Ju lowered the carbine and placed it in Sergeant Ji's awaiting hands, with a blank expression on his face. Ji smiled as he acknowledged the act of obedience.
I rushed over to the traumatized Geun, still not quite believing what I had seen. And, as I lay cradling him, wishing he did not have to witness such a horrible act, I heard Ji proudly announce:
Geol-eul sueobsneun byeongsaneum igil sueobsneun jeonjaeng-ibnida.
"A soldier who cannot walk is a war that cannot be won."
As we headed off into the wooded area, leaving our colleague unburied, the sky turned a deep shade of orange. I was able to get one last glimpse of it before it was covered by the black branches of the still-bare trees.
It was so vibrant that one could barely see the streaks of the mortars falling from the sky.
We were forced to hike across the muddy landscape under Sergeant Ji's lead. His explanation for doing so, when we demanded it from him, was that we were setting up a long defense position to combat a supposed U.S. flanking movement. I was too furious at him, and at Seok-Ju, to speak.
At one point Ji told us to stop and make a fire. Geun, Seok-Ju, and I unpacked our bags to cook the tinned rations, while Seok-Ho and Tae were to gather wood. Sergeant Ji said he would accompany them in order to make sure Tae got his share of the work done.
With him gone, Geun and I were free to discuss what we'd seen.
"What...what was that back there?" Geun asked, still incredulous.
"I don't want to think about it ever again," I replied.
Then we both turned and stared at our colleague, who was calmly unwrapping the tins of porridge. I realized putting the murder out of my mind would be impossible when in the company of the very person who committed the act.
I hadn't felt so much anger for someone since I was home with my father. Just the thought of Hyun's death brought to mind thoughts of the many beatings he had incurred on me during my childhood. But I was able to put my personal life out of my head and focused on the recent events.
"What the fuck, Seok-Ju?" I sputtered. "How could you do that? How could you shoot your own squad member? How could you do that? How?"
He continued his task, not even caring enough to look at me.
"Hey, you motherfucker, ANSWER ME! Why did you kill him?"
He turned and looked at me, with the same blank expression in his eyes I'd seen when he committed the horrible act.
He simply said, "He told me to."
And with that, he went back to his work.
Somewhere in the distance a bomb hit the earth, sending a crack throughout the forest.
"I don't give a shit about what Ji said! You still killed your own friend! A fellow soldier!"
I was so busy screaming that I didn't notice Geun had picked up one of the rocks we were piling and was now wielding it in his hand.
Before I could react, Geun was upon him. The rock smashed violently into Seok-Ju's jaw, instantly breaking it. I could hear the telltale crack of bone shattering as the rock went up, and down, and up, and down, and up, and down.
Until there was nothing left but bone shards and blood.
I pulled back Geun, who curled up in a fetal position and cried.
"I... I couldn't control myself..." he whimpered. "It’s just… my... my father, he..." He moaned in remorse. “It’s just like what he did.”
"It's okay, Geun. It's okay." I hugged him, holding back his shaking arms.
"My mother... she was always mistreated. Always put up with it. One day she went behind his back and made love to the neighbor's husband." He sniffed, tears beginning to roll down his dirt-crusted cheeks. "I was friends with his daughter. We were both shocked to find out. When my father found out, though, he didn't... seem too affected." He wiped his nose, burying his head in his hands.
"He didn't seem too affected when he took a shotgun to my neighbors and my friend."
He sobbed again.
"I was there to watch it, Sang! I was playing in his yard when he just burst through the door and... and..." He leaned over and vomited, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Seeing Hyun die reminded me of her... just the senseless murder..."
I felt so much for him at that moment. I pictured my own father at home, abusing my mother. I knew he would never do such a thing. He was too cowardly. But all the mental torture he'd put me through... I wished I had the courage to do the same thing to him. To just take a rock and pummel his head till his brains spewed out all over the floor.
“I don’t want to fight this war, Sang,” he choked. He then looked down at his blood-streaked hands, and took in a gasp of air as he stared at what he’d done. “All these people we’re fighting… they have families, too. People who love them. I killed five soldiers today, Sang. Six now. I’ve resorted to killing my own squad. I… I think I’m becoming him.”
I wanted so badly to tell Geun it was okay, that it wasn't his fault. But I couldn't. I don't know why, but I just couldn't.
I looked down at Seok-Ju's bloody corpse. I know I should have felt a sense of remorse, like I had for Hyun-Wook, but for some reason I didn't. Staring at the dead body made me almost satisfied, in a way.
I crouched down and began repiling the rocks for the fire pit.
The planes had stopped flying overhead, and for the first time that day, there was absolute silence.
We had finished the fire pit long before Sergeant Ji, Tae, and Seok-Ho came back. They eventually materialized from the landscape, as if emerging from the trees themselves.
I noticed two things right away.
The first detail I noticed was that Ji was the only one carrying firewood. Tae was empty-handed.
And the second was that Seok-Ho wasn't with them.
Geun and I held our breaths as they approached.
Ji arrived at the pit and dropped in his bundle of logs. Tae soon joined him, and sat opposite Geun and me.
It was then that he noticed the corpse of Seok-Ju lying off to the side.
He peered at it for a moment, then turned and stared.
Directly at Geun.
I don't know how he knew it. I didn't have time to wonder how.
Because the next thing that he did was walk up to me and hand me his gun.
He didn't even have to speak. I knew what he wanted me to do. Geun knew what he wanted me to do. And Tae did nothing but stare.
I took the T-38 and held it in my hands. It was strange to be holding the weapon; it emanated an aura of death, almost as if it was cursed. But I had to admit it felt solid and weighty in my possession. I stood up and looked into the distance, in the direction of the battlements from where we'd first come. I wondered if this is what it felt like to have power in life, to decide the fate of others.
I wondered if my father felt this too.
I wondered if he felt it when he beat me, or rubbed my face in his shit, or forced me to watch him rape my mother.
I turned to look at Geun's pleading expression.
All the rage, all the torture, all the pain I'd put up with throughout my life had culminated in that one moment.
I looked at Sergeant Ji and I saw my father.
"If you say so, sir."
And I pulled the trigger without hesitation.
Blood splattered against the rocks. Where Ji's nose should have been was now a gaping hole, flesh dripping from the inside, as if it were liquid.
I lowered the rifle and let it fall from my grip, and listened to it sink slightly into the loamy soil.
I should mention that I hadn't killed a single U.S. soldier in battle that day. And I'd just killed my own sergeant.
The feeling that came over me was something extraordinary.
There was a great pain, a searing, remorseful pang that felt like a stab in my heart. But accompanying it was an almost joyous sensation, a fantastic satisfaction that I had rid the world of everyone else's pain.
I was emburdened, I was relieved.
I was happy.
And then the feeling went away as I stared downwards and realized what I had done.
I dropped to my knees in shock. I couldn't speak. I couldn't think. I could only look at my calloused hands and cry.
"Don't cry, soldier."
I looked up, expecting to face a conversation from Geun.
The voice was Tae's.
The son of the deceased sergeant stood up and lit a match with his fingernail, tossing it into the pit and igniting the tinder.
"There's no need to feel regret over anything that happened today."
I looked over to Geun, expecting the same astonished reaction that I'd had. But he was staring forward, focusing on something unseen behind Tae.
"War is a concept that warrants the taking of life. We kill because we see it as right. The dead did not deserve their lives."
Out of my periphery, I saw Geun reach for the pile of guns that lay behind us.
"But killing is so much more than that."
I could hear Geun grabbing one of the rifles from the pile.
"Killing is necessary for survival. Ironic, isn't it?"
I heard the fumbling of bullets being loaded into the rifle.
"But not only that. Killing is the only punishment people will truly learn from. It's an ultimate expression of dominance."
The magazine of the rifle clicked into place.
"And killing is... merciful. For both the victim… and the one holding the gun."
Geun stood up and loaded a bullet into the chamber of his T-99.
"What the fuck are you talking about, Tae?" he hissed. I detected a hint of apprehension in his voice.
"I think you of all people know what I'm talking about," he responded. He smiled. The fire crackled beneath him.
I turned to look at Geun, whose expression had morphed into a mixture of horror and remorse.
"Killing releases the monsters inside us all."
The fire suddenly bloomed into a full blaze, illuminating Tae's perfectly black eyes, his glistening pointed teeth, his unnatural green veins poking through his skin.
"Geol-eul sueobsneun byeongsaneum igil sueobsneun jeonjaeng-ibnida."
Without hesitation, Geun turned the rifle towards his own face.
"If you say so, sir."
And with that, he pulled the trigger.
Tae, or whatever had taken on the form of Tae, disappeared into the woods before Geun's body even hit the ground.
I buried him next to Seok-Ju and the Sergeant, to the left of the fire pit. I watched as the sun rose above the trees, and my eyes followed a single green leaf that had fallen from above. It whistled its way down until it touched the diminishing flames of the fire and began to curl up. A plane flew overhead, the first of the day, and a mortar dropped somewhere back towards the battlements.
I left all my equipment there and simply started hiking in a straight line. Away from that place. Away from whatever was controlling us. I don't know where it went. I don't know if it's still there. I didn't care.
Eventually I reached civilization and was able to retreat to the U.S.-occupied South, where my English was put to good use.
I may not be as deserving of the title "veteran" as other people. I fought in the Korean War for a day.
But I fought in Korea all my life.
And since then I have never stopped fighting.
Written by Noctevoire